During the 2021 season, coronavirus outbreaks decimated the American League East. The New York Yankees had three: one in May, one in July, and one in August, forcing them to cancel games and often call up minor leaguers with little MLB experience. In early September, the Boston Red Sox were hit by an outbreak that infected twelve players just as the season was entering its crucial stage. In a division where the difference between the second and fourth place teams was one game, COVID-19 had a major impact on the standings.
Entering the 2022 season, almost all the major contenders in the AL East have made additions. The Rays are set to get full seasons out of Wander Franco and Shane Baz in addition to returning most of a 100-win roster. The Red Sox signed Trevor Story to bolster an already stellar lineup. The Yankees brought in Josh Donaldson and retained Anthony Rizzo, in addition to returning Luis Severino to one of the best pitching staffs in the AL. And the Blue Jays had arguably the best offseason, bringing in cy young candidate Kevin Gausman and all-star third baseman Matt Chapman. With all four teams remaining competitive, the division could once again come down to a few games or series. COVID is once again set to play an important role in the division race, but one team might benefit more than the others.
Canada Vaccination Rules
While unvaccinated players were able to travel to Canada to play in games towards the end of the 2021 season, Canada has changed their vaccination rules entering the 2022 season. Now, all athletes that wish to travel to Canada have to be vaccinated, which means unvaccinated players on other AL East teams could be missing up to 9-10 games.
This could give the Blue Jays an important leg up on the competition, as for half of their games, they could be playing teams not at full strength. Just in the AL East alone, there is plenty of room for concern among competitors. The Red Sox failed to meet the 85 percent threshold for vaccinations last season, and ace Chris Sale has confirmed that he remains unvaccinated. While the Yankees did meet the 85 percent threshold last year, Aaron Boone stated at the start of spring training that “[the Yankees] still have a few guys at least who are not vaccinated.” If that includes sluggers like Aaron Judge, who dodged a question about his vaccine status, the Yankees could be playing some of their most important games without their best player.
Not Subject to Change
With the potential consequences for American teams due to Canada’s vaccination mandate, some have speculated that Canada could make an exception to the law in order to allow visiting MLB players to compete. New York had a private employee mandate that was going to prevent Yankees and Mets players from playing, but it was lifted March 24. However, Canada has shown no signs of lifting restrictions anytime soon, so it is likely that the mandate remains in effect, especially considering it has been in effect during the current NBA season.
While the law will not change, players may change their stance on the vaccine. Not only do players hurt their teams by being unvaccinated and unable to play in Toronto, they also lose pay and service time for games missed due to vaccination policies. Kevin Plawecki, a Red Sox catcher, specifically pointed to the law as the reason he was receiving the vaccine, pointing out that he did not want to miss 10 games in Toronto. Trevor Story’s deal with the Red Sox got held up, until he agreed to get vaccinated. As the season goes on and players miss games, more athletes will likely make the decision to get the shot.
An Unfair Advantage?
At face value, it may seem like Canada’s vaccination rules create an unfair advantage for the Blue Jays, and it is probably true that they will face slightly worse competition than other teams during home games.
But, it can also be valuable to look at the considerable disadvantages the Blue Jays have had to deal with for the past two seasons. In 2020, they had to play the entire season at the Buffalo Bisons stadium, their Triple-A affiliate. Then, in 2021, they had to play in three different places: Dunedin (their spring training home), Buffalo, and finally Toronto on July 30.
Additionally, Canada’s vaccination rules mean the Blue Jays are unable to sign unvaccinated players. While vaccination records are not publicly available, there is no doubt that this influenced their free agency in the past year, as seven teams remained under the 85% vaccination threshold in 2021.
Perhaps it is only fair to the Blue Jays that after two years of competing at a significant disadvantage compared to the rest of the league, they get a small leg-up on their competition this year. After all, if teams want to prevent the Blue Jays from having this advantage, they just have to get vaccinated: it is that simple.
Main image credit Embed from Getty Images